Who can commit human rights violations?

Human Rights Movement Philippines

The military and the police are always under pain of being charged with human rights violations every time they are accused of assaulting or killing persons. But rarely do we hear of civilians being tagged with human rights violations when they assault or kill persons. When civilians commit assault or if they kill they are usually charged with common crimes like murder, homicide or physical injury charges but without any mention of human rights violations. Hence the notion that only the government can commit and can be charged with human rights violations. This, I believe, is a misplaced concept of what human rights violation is.

Human rights violations is defined as:

including  actions by state or non-state actors which abuse, ignore, or deny basic human rights (including civil, political, cultural, social, and economic rights). Furthermore, violations of human rights can occur when any state or non-state actor breaches any part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Treaty or other international human rights or humanitarian law.

Republic Act 9851 or the Philippine Act on Crimes Against International Humanitarian Law states that human rights violations include criminal acts which are punishable under Sections 4, 5, and 6 thereof committed by any person.

These universal and local definitions of human rights violations did not start with a premise that human rights violations are “acts committed by the state”. It is clear that such violations can be committed by non-state agents or any other individual. So how did the notion that only the government particularly the military or the police are the only ones committing human rights violations?

I believe that it has something to do with two things. First, the historical experience of the Philippines with the military and the police during the Marcos era.  It is no secret that the police and the military had been utilized during the Martial Law years to advance the political gains of those in power. There were many disappearances, tortures, and atrocities done against those who opposed Marcos – all these were carried out through the military and the police. The stigma of the military and the police being agents of the state in committing human rights violations during the Marcos era had stuck on even after the Marcos regime, so much so that every assault or killing by any member of the military or the police against civilians is susceptible of being labeled as a human rights violation – when in fact they may just be common crimes.

Second, and perhaps the more apparent reason is the way how the Bill of Rights provision in the 1987 Constitution has been couched. The Bill of Rights is basically an enumeration of basic human rights which every Filipinos should enjoy. A majority of the rights enumerated therein involve the rights of an accused. An accused against whom the entire prosecution-machinery of the government has been mobilized and that being he must be protected. Now before an accused is brought to court for trial, he must first be apprehended and the agency tasked in apprehending the accused is normally the police or the military. The Bill of Rights is equated to human rights and any violation thereof makes only the State liable because rights enumerated therein are supposed to be safeguarded and complied with by the State through the police or the military. The Bill of Rights situates the State and the people/accused against each other when it comes to rights but the rights of the people weighs heavier than those of the State i.e., right against torture outweighs the right of the State to fend off threats to national security. Every single right in the Bill is meant to protect the people from the overwhelming power of the State and with such an enumeration; it is not uncommon for the military or the police to be accused of violating the Bill of Rights every time there are people complaining about being deprived of due process or every time someone who is under their custody died or disappeared.

In reality though, anyone can commit human rights violations. It is not a crime exclusively committed by the state or its agents i.e., the police or the military. For instance, rebels commit human rights violations when they use civilians as human shields or if they attack schools and other institutions which are universally considered as conflict free zones or if they commit any violation against the articles of war. Civilians can also commit human rights violations. An instance is when one civilian, belonging to a certain ethnic group would kill certain members of another ethnic group with the intent and purpose of eradicating the other ethnic group. The idea of human rights violations being always associated with the military and the police is just a stigma straight out of observable history. It was a product of the tainted image of the military and the police formed in the minds of the many Filipinos which have fallen as victims of atrocities committed by despotic regimes. It is time to do away from this notion. The problem of human rights violation will never be solved if we tunnel vision ourselves in to thinking that only the government commits it.

NOTE: This is a condensed version of a reaction paper I submitted in one of my classes.

About the author

Howard Chan (The Student)

Howard considers himself as an armchair activist. Though his street rally days are in a slumber he still advocates changes via social media. He is a strong believer that awareness of various social issues is a good starting point in order to break out from the stranglehold of an oppressive system which only benefits the few. He is also a full time student and a part time blogger, part time web designer, part time web manager/designer for various clients. (Note: Howard Chan passed the 2014 Bar Exams and was admitted to the Philippine Bar on April 29, 2015. That being, all posts after April 29, 2015 authored by him are now under the name Howard Chan for the purpose of distinguishing posts he made as a non-lawyer from posts he made after admission to the bar).